Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hands Off, That Belongs To Me!

First off – I apologize for getting my post up so late today! I was the one saying, "Nah, I'm cool with Tuesdays…you guys change around, but I'm good," and here I am, LATE. LOL!

Good news is that this morning I had NO idea what to blog about, and then I listened to SECRET WINDOW, SECRET GARDEN by Stephen King and BAM…instant topic. Or rather a reminder that I promised to talk a bit about copyright.

If you've read the short story…or if you've seen the movie, you know why I remembered my earlier promise. For those of you who haven't (Do you live in a cave?? Johnny Depp starred in the movie! Kidding. Sort of. J) , here's the basic gist: A well-known novelist is approached by a man claiming that said well-known novelist stole one of his short stories. The novelist (played by Johnny Depp in the movie) doesn't have any idea what this man is talking about because he's never seen him before in his life. Not that it makes much difference to the guy—he threatens him and much violence ensues as Johnny tries to defend his work—and later, his life.

Okay, as writers, that's probably one of the scariest things we have to deal with. Not the psychopathic killer intent on stealing our work (though fo sho that's scary)—but the idea that we may inadvertently swipe an idea, some lines—whatever—from another author. No one wants to be known as the writer that can't come up with his/her own original material. And NO ONE wants to be sued for plagiarizing the work of another person!

Let me begin by saying this: If you're not intentionally copying someone else's work (and I'm pretty sure you would know it if you were), it's not likely that you'll ever be sued for copyright infringement. Well, you COULD be sued, but if you ever are, most likely that means you're a millionaire who has sold a shit-ton of books and you have a gaggle of lawyers at your beck and call…and most likely the claim is a bunch of malarky made up by someone trying to latch on to your creative coattails. Got it?


And so begins Copyright Lesson #1 a la Jen.

Disclaimer: If you're expecting high-faluting terminology here, turn back now. I'm going to speak in as non-lawyerly a fashion as I possibly can. For one, I don't want to confuse myself. Second: I went to law school, yes, but I never took nor passed the bar. I am not a licensed attorney. This is not legal advice, and should not be taken as such. Should you base any of your future actions on the information included in this post, you do so at your own risk. Got it, fu?

Hehe…that was kinda fun.


(Feel free to ask any questions, by the way. I won't be able to cover everything in one post, so tangents are welcome.)

I think one of the most important questions on a lot of minds is when copyright begins. I can't tell you the number of writers I've interacted with through the years who are Freaked Out about protecting their stories…who are FREAKED OUT that someone will steal their ideas… I, too, was one of these writers at one point in time. But let me tell you some reassuring news:

The moment your pen hits paper…or your fingers tap those keys…you're covered by copyright.

Prepare yourselves for a legal moment.

By statute, §101 – a work is created when its first fixed in some tangible form.

To break that down, putting your words down on paper is putting it into a 'tangible form.' If you were a singer or a songwriter, making a recording of your song would be a 'tangible form.' Or writing down the music and lyrics…or just the lyrics… be it on a napkin, a post-it, a shopping bag, or the back of a candy wrapper – THAT is a tangible form.

Putting words on a blog is giving you copyright of the material. For instance, A KILL IN TIME? It belongs to Rachel, Kristen, Claire, and me. It's ours. (Hands off.) If someone tried to copy it, we'd have grounds for suing them. Those waters are a little bit muddied by the fact that we're each writing different sections and not collaborating on the story as a whole, but that's something for another day.

The point is: if it's in a 'tangible form,' you're covered by copyright.

You may be saying, but what if it isn't in a tangible form? And just what IS a non-tangible form? If you are, you get a gold star for skipping ahead of the class..

Here's an example of something that you may have created but wouldn't necessarily be given copyright protection over. Say you stand on a street corner and start making up a story about the people passing by. You verbalize the story for all of those in earshot…and hot damn if it isn't a GOOD story. Only problem? It's not written down. You've just spouted off enough creativity to sell a million copies, and some dude named Chuck down the street could rip you off – legally -- by jotting it down on the back of a paper napkin.

Think of an improv troupe. (They're so much fun to watch!) WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY is too funny for words, and what those guys do is AMAZING. The guys on that show could be covered because the show is on video – there's something tangible to say MINE. That's MINE. But if they were doing a live stage show, and no such recording took place, someone else could come along and rip off their funniest lines. Greg Proops may later say, BUT I SAID THAT! but he wouldn't necessarily have an actionable case against the low-down, dirty thief. (tee)

To bring it back to SECRET WINDOW, SECRET GARDEN, if Johnny had written his story in his head—and even if he knew it word for word and could recite it perfectly upon request, he wouldn't be protected. It isn't in a 'tangible form' and therefore doesn't qualify for protection.

Make sense?

More next time. I'm having law school flashbacks and must go recover now.



  1. Awesome advice, Jen! Thanks for putting that on paper :) This has to be the most compelling reason yet to get one's butt in the seat and write the damned story... (G)

  2. Excellent post, Professor Hendren. (g) Now I'd better get busy transcribing those voices in my head ...

  3. Thanks Jen! It`s good to know this stuff. When I was a lot younger, someone once told me that you could copyright your stuff by mailing it to yourself and never opening it. I think I still have my two romance novels in sealed envelopes somewhere in the depths of the closet...